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Marriage in North Korea: The Ideal Bride or Groom


Saturday 24th November, 2012

The desirable qualities that are most sought after in a potential marriage partner may offer clues to a society’s most cherished values. In certain cases, it can even reflect on the current character of the nation’s economy. According to recent defectors, desirable criteria for marriage in North Korea have shifted dramatically in the last decade or so.

Traditionally, the desirable North Korean bachelor has been a university graduate, recently discharged from the military and a holder of Party membership. In addition, if the rest of his family members were considered loyal in the eyes of the regime, he was a most sought after future husband.

Let us look closer at the first three conditions. Firstly, university education suggests that the man has proven his credentials in the eyes of the regime; recent military discharge signifies that the time is ripe for him to embark on his successful career; Party membership is a solid guarantee that he has the official mark of approval regards to family background and future prospects.

In recent years, these criteria have all but ceased to be the most desirable qualities in a bachelor. Running contrary to the official ideology, North Korea’s most sought after men have financial means and a source of cash flow, a job with foreign ties, or has among his family members defectors who have successfully settled abroad.

This is perhaps a reflection of how the fundamental values of North Korean society have shifted: loyalty to the regime, once the main currency of North Korea, has now given way to money. Bribery can buy jobs, Party membership can be bought with cash, and even one’s background: defector Park (aged 35, left in 2009) testified to passing her university exams without having attended a single class, by way of donating a Yamaha piano to her faculty.

The ideal profession is now ‘Businessman’ or ‘Diplomat’. We might imagine that students who attend Kim Il-sung University are imbued with ideal North Korean values, such as loyalty to the state ideology. Yet even among the elite, education is now seen as a means of access to the outside world of capitalism; and not of securing a foothold in North Korea’s rigid hierarchy of loyalty rankings.

For similar reasons, an opportunity to study for a degree in foreign languages is highly prized. This opens up the possibility of a foreign posting. And of course, the greatest incentive for a foreign posting is open access to foreign currency.

For young men too, the most desirable qualities in a bride have shifted. Looks and attraction still play an obvious role, but wealth has increasingly become a significant factor.

A woman’s desirability shoots up if she has relatives abroad. This is despite the regime’s harsh stance on defections and its system of guilt-by-association, which may otherwise have led us to think that having such undesirables in the family may reduce one’s marriageability rating. It is especially ironic that although the regime frowns on defections to South Korea more than any other kinds of defections, a woman with family members in South Korea is most sought after.

Again, this criterion is related not to ideal qualities determined by the regime, but to financial opportunities that it offers. It is well known among North Koreans that defectors who settle in South Korea send the largest amount of cash packets to their family in North Korea, despite sanctions.

Just as Korean-Japanese used to be the envy of all for having relatives in Japan, North Koreans with family in South Korea are now the envy of all. They are envied rather than being ‘downgraded’ in the public mind for their association with disloyal elements.

This ties in with the larger trend in which the acquisition of personal wealth has become the top priority for North Koreans, above mere loyalty to the regime. This increasing emphasis on money and potential earnings is not dissimilar to the values that are cherished in a capitalist society. At least in the world of spouse-searching, a capitalist revolution is underway.